“If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” – University was a strange time for me. Whilst most people didn’t quote Mean Girls to me, it was something to that effect. After this comment it was usually some frustrating or ignorant question. Some of the remarks that have made it into the hall of fame were “Do you have a pet tiger?” and “Do you ride an elephant to school?” When I was younger I found these situations hilarious. I would answer positively to both questions and enjoy the attention.
When I came to the UK for university these situations started to frustrate me. Every ignorant question or frustrating assumption added up. Each time I had to explain my background I felt more alienated from those around me.
“Yes, I am white and lived in Kenya.”
“My parents are British. I know I have an American accent.”
“I grew up in Kenya. Yes, it was safe.”
“No, I can’t explain the first 18 years of my life in one sentence.”
What I didn’t realise at the time was the extent of the cultural gap between me and others. If you haven’t experienced it for yourself, cultural differences can be all-encompassing. The surface level discrepancies are simple enough to identify, such as food or clothes. But there are much deeper and significant ones; perception of time, understanding of mathematics, or whether football or American ‘football’ is a better sport (seriously, there is only one winner here).
Despite having a British passport, I am not British. I am a TCK. I belong to a cultural group which is not bound by time or place, but experience. It is unlike other groups and was once rare, but now has millions of people.
The official definition of a TCK is someone who has spent a significant portion of their formative years, usually around the ages of 5-20ish, in a culture that is different than their parent’s. The other caveat is that it is a cultural identity that is uniquely based around certain experiences; some other cross-cultural kids (CCK’s) are not TCK’s, even though they share a cross-culture heritage.
The definition of a TCK is deliberately left vague and inclusive. For some people a significant portion of their formative years is just one year, for others three or four are not significant enough. Being a TCK can occur in a single country with cultural diversity (think Russia), but it usually involves the child living in a country that is different than their parents.
But why is this important?
Culture plays a critical role in forming our identity and the way we relate to others. It is impossible to escape this. Because culture, for better or for worse, shapes how we view food, language, relationships, spirituality, maths, music etc. we cannot escape it. There is not an aspect of our lives untouched by it. TCK’s are a distinct cultural group, so any communication or relationship you have with one is cross-cultural (unless you are also a TCK).
Culture’s wide reach does not negate individual differences. Culture is descriptive, it is not prescriptive. Each individual will always be unique. However, every individual from a certain culture will share traits with every other individual from that culture. That might be a love of football (not American ‘football’) or a spoken language.
This means that TCK’s tend to share traits, even if they have never lived on the same continent. These can range from struggling with authority to finding ourselves a constant object of romantic attraction. Welcome to our bizarre and exciting world.
Given that every part of who we are is tempered and molded by culture, it makes sense that it plays a big role in our identity. This is a massive challenge for TCK’s. We often struggle with identity issues as we try and figure out what part of us is which.
Part of the definition of being a TCK is cultural diversity in your formative years. When people develop they naturally learn the rules of culture, even if they don’t want to. Living in a culture teaches people the rules of when it is appropriate to joke, smile, play games, cry, dance, read, work. One naturally knows what appropriate dress looks like, what is offensive, and what is appropriate. Whilst there might be some grey areas, people naturally know the black and white. Mostly, this is subconscious.
This provides a platform for freedom. Without having to constantly scrutinise everything, people can thrive. They can tell a joke without worrying if it is offensive. They can wear an outfit without having to research if it will be appropriate. They can eat a meal without panicking about which utensils to use.
TCK’s usually don’t experience this part of growing up. Part of our identity is a diverse cultural influence in our development. The freedom that comes with a home culture is elusive. We often struggle to rest when we are continuously trying to figure out what lens we should be looking through. In one culture we might know how to dress, but not know the language. In another culture we might know how they understand maths, but not how to greet people.
Whilst this is a great challenge, it is also a rich perspective. We have spent our lives switching and observing worldviews. Each one tends to teach us something. We are privileged to have so much cultural exposure. TCK’s tend to bring incredibly diverse and creative perspectives to any situation. We have deep insights because we see things in different lights.
On a good day we are like octopi. We can fit in anywhere, blending into our background. We are cross-cultural experts, at home anywhere in the world. Our travels and travails have made us resilient and resourceful. We are a beautiful mosaic of what the world has to offer.
On a bad day we are Frankenstein’s monster. We are a scrambled mix of pieces that don’t belong together. Conflicting worldviews cause us internal turmoil as we fight to understand who we are and where we belong. The constant grief of transition has left its ugly scars across our body and identity.
A final point here is that TCKs’ lives are filled with grief. Some less so, but most are filled to the brim with it. Please take this seriously. We are heavy souls, burdened by a grief that should be well beyond our years. This grief is a horrible challenge, but can also train us in wisdom, resilience, and maturity far exceeding our peers.
Home and Belonging
TCK’s often struggle to feel at home anywhere. Our least favourite question (if a culture can share a least favourite question) is “where are you from?”. It tends to be complicated, and it’s almost always a long story. We don’t have anywhere to lay our head. We don’t have anywhere to head back to.
I grew up in Kenya, but I don’t feel like I belong there. When I go back I have forgotten my Kiswahili. The customs are not natural to me and I have to constantly think about what is appropriate in various circumstances. My skin colour and blonde hair don’t help me fit in. I grew up in a Kikuyu area where I didn’t look or sound like anyone. When I go to Kenya people call me ‘mzungu,’ meaning white man or foreigner. I love being sarcastic like British people, but it doesn’t resonate with people in Kenya.
When I am in the UK I look the part and sound closer to it. But I am more communitarian. I can’t understand the individualistic lifestyle or the direct communication. People plan too much here and are always seeking to be in control of situations, which is far from my worldview. So many of my values, thoughts, and perspectives belong to Kenya, not the UK.
Whilst my brothers are TCK’s, the rest of my family aren’t. There is a cultural gap between me and my extended family which is hard to get by. Even my parents, who have spent the last 30 years doing cross-cultural work, are different than me. There is a cultural gap between us. This is not a bad thing, but is part of life.
For a lot of TCK’s ideas of home don’t invoke thoughts of a place. Instead, travelling is home. Some TCK’s feel that comfort and familiarity when travelling. Many TCK’s find home in relationships. People who know them so well that the cultural differences are no longer problematic. To better understand these dynamics, check out the Art Gallery on the blog.
The cultural gap plays a massive role when it comes to relationships. TCK’s tend to enjoy relationships. We often like to be deep unnervingly quickly. Our lives have often been a pattern of getting to know people very quickly because one of us might move soon. The reverse of this is to build up defenses. The constant stress of losing can mean that building new ones is unappealing.
Moving from one culture to the next means that TCK’s tend to have great superficial social skills. In most situations we can adapt quickly and learn what to say and how to act. Despite these skills, we are often lonely. We can struggle to make more sincere friends as others see our background as making us arrogant, or just plain weird.
Part of this challenge is being a hidden immigrant. Our great social skills, paired with our unique cultural group, mean people often think of us in the wrong category. They don’t extend to us the same cultural graces they would to other people from other cultural groups. People often think of me as a British person. This is wrong. I am not British. Relating to me as a British person will only make things more difficult for our relationship. Communication is often the most frustrating part of being a hidden immigrant.
Even in the same language different cultures can miscommunicate. I remember hearing a story of a couple of Americans who went to the UK and stayed at a Bed and Breakfast (like a motel, but homelier). They were appalled when their host asked what time they wanted to be ‘knocked up’ in the morning. The owner of the B&B was offering to wake them up in the morning by knocking on their door. However, that expression means to become pregnant in the US.
It is very important to be aware of cultural differences when communicating cross-culturally. When I lived with a Swiss flatmate he would respond to my terrible ideas with “that’s stupid.” Nice and blunt. When I lived with Scottish flatmates they would respond to similarly ridiculous ideas with “um… ok… are you sure Noggy?” Whilst still trying to communicate the stupidity of my idea, they were more indirect.
Culture gives you a lens to see reality, like a pair of sunglasses. If two people are looking at a painting and one is wearing dark sunglasses and the other is wearing pink-shaded glasses, they will have two very different experiences. Unless they realise that they have different lenses, they won’t be able to discuss the art properly with one another.
TCK’s are their own cultural group, meaning that we have a different way of viewing the world. What makes us distinct isn’t a particular shade of lens, but that we have multiple lenses. Our sunglasses are comprised of a single piece of glass which is a kaleidoscope of colour. If you want to communicate well with a TCK, or vice versa, you need to remember this. Cultural engagement is crucial in communication.
Building our cultural bridge
Whenever there is a cultural divide a bridge must be built. A cultural bridge is a mutual understanding or awareness of the implications of culture. This does not mean fully understanding your counterpart’s culture, but understanding that there is a different lens. This is a tricky process, but is necessary.
Sometimes the bridge is relatively small. Americans coming to the UK often need a short conversation to understand British culture and build that bridge. However, usually the bridge is a lot more difficult to build. It is usually trying to span multiple cultural points at once.
An ideal, healthy relationship requires that both sides are building the bridge. For this to happen there first needs to be an acknowledgement of the cultural gap. Once the gap is acknowledged the bridge building can proceed.
Bridge building is not a painful, clinical approach to relationships. It is not handing over questionnaires and diagnostically understanding other people. It is how you get to know people. If a crucial part of their identity is their culture, then to get to know them better you need to get to know their culture better, and vice versa. Whilst this might involve reading books on culture, it usually takes the form of playing football, going for meals together, or just chatting. Bridge building is almost always just being a supportive, interested, and humble friend to the other person.
There may be cases where one side has to do most of the building. This is often the case when a TCK moves to a new location as a hidden immigrant. Before she moves to a new location she may be the only one aware of the cultural gap. This one-sided approach will drain the party who is doing all the building, so isn’t ideal. However, it is often unavoidable. The burden often falls on the more culturally experienced party to show the other person the cultural gap and the need for bridge building. Whilst this one-way system isn’t ideal, it is a necessary part of life. With some people I felt like I was in this stage for years, eventually stopping investing in the relationship. With other people I was in this stage for about five minutes before they started bridge building.
I have had lots of people attempt to counsel me and tell me to not worry about culture and just be myself. Apart from showing a misunderstanding of the nature of culture, it also shows an unwillingness to build the bridge. The person is communicating that they are not acknowledging the cultural gap. Without a gap there is no need to build a bridge. This puts all the pressure on me to build the bridge, which is not ideal.
TCK’s can also be guilty of refusing to build bridges. This can be for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps a TCK is distraught because of the cycle of broken relationships that transitions cause. Often TCK’s are well acquainted with privilege, which may lead to them looking down on other cultures. Other times the TCK is culturally imperious and dismisses the other culture. This is particularly common when the TCK is returning to the parents’ host culture. I spent years being irrationally angry and disappointed with British culture.
The most important part of being a TCK is that we are human. We are made in the image of God just like everyone else. We are not more special or precious than other people. We are no less valuable or important than others. We all have strengths and weaknesses, just like anyone. We all need to be known in a personal and loving way.
Hopefully this post has given you a wee insight into what a TCK is. We are a people group spread across the globe, commonly found in the wilderness of airports. Hiding in plain sight, we might be difficult to spot. Feel free to approach, we don’t bite. Please ask us where we are from, just be prepared to listen.
 Taken from David Polluck and Ruth Van Reken’s book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Although I think that was taken from a Seminar David Polluck had done in 1989.